After a year of cancellations, rescheduling and virtual events for graduates, Sweet Briar College on Saturday celebrated the first traditional commencement ceremony held by a Lynchburg-area college or university in two years.
Though a bit different from normal with three guests per graduate and mask requirements, the event marked the area’s first college commencement of 2021 and the first in-person ceremony since before the pandemic.
With many holding onto their caps during sporadic wind gusts, more than 60 graduates collected various degrees over the weekend.
The Albemarle Pipes and Drums Band played from the end of Quad Drive to where they met students at Benedict Stairs. Students followed behind the band as they led into Upper Quad where commencement was held outdoors.
During SBC’s 112th commencement, President Meredith Woo expressed pride in the tenacious and strong-willed women as well as gratitude for their families for their faith in them.
“We celebrate the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar for their hard work and perseverance, and above all, for their commitment to our students,” she said. “We celebrate the alumnae of the college who have made history, and the board of directors for so ably guiding the college to the future.”
She also thanked the community for its continued commitment to the college.
“I celebrate and salute the brave members of our community, for their profound commitment to the long and important tradition at Sweet Briar of educating women of consequence,” she said.
Samantha Runyon, senior class president, spoke to graduates and thanked them for their continued perseverance, flexibility and dedication to the school.
“The class of 2021 has navigated this year with grace and dignity, and persevered through so many changes in our short time here, and I have never been prouder to call myself a Sweet Briar woman,” she said.
Jewel Bronaugh, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, addressed graduates as the guest speaker.
Bronaugh is President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the deputy secretary of agriculture for the United States. The position is the second highest in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and if confirmed, she would be the first African American to serve in that position.
“I have always dreamed of speaking at a college commencement. And you gave me my first invitation, so again I say thank you to Sweet Briar and to the class of 2021 for fulfilling this dream,” she said.
She spoke about Esther in the Bible who went on to save an entire generation of Jewish people from their demise through her bravery, smarts, grace and intelligence.
“She led with her positive influence, which is why the outcome for her people was so positive,” she said. “The story of Esther illustrates how anyone, especially a woman, has been created for greatness—no matter your background or where you come from, who raised you, or your life experiences or tragedies. It also illustrates how we as women can fight our fears and bring glory to an entire generation of people.”
She looked around at the graduates and said she saw many “Esthers.”
“The story of Esther is about strength, leadership, bravery and greatness,” she said. “I see an area full of Esther’s today who are about to change the world.”
Life is full of challenges as the world saw in 2020, Bronaugh said.
“But none of these challenges are impossible. Many times, it’s how you look at those challenges that determine the outcome. Many see a challenge as an opportunity. Remember, you have the power to turn things around,” she said.
Many colleges and universities have closed their doors because of “insurmountable financial challenges,” she said.
But for Sweet Briar the outcome was different, Bronaugh said.
She reminded those at the ceremony about how Sweet Briar alumnae, students, faculty and supporters united to save the college from closing through legal action, social media and a fundraising campaign, “Saving Sweet Briar” in 2015.
“This is what always amazes me ... at the beginning of August, before Sweet Briar opened its doors again, 168 volunteers, mostly alumnae, returned to campus to paint, prune, pull weeds and work together to prepare the college for an incoming crop of students,” she said.
Woo sent the graduates off into their future by speaking about how they navigated the COVID-19 epidemic, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, that would disrupt the course of their college life.
“With the decision that our campus would stay open for in-person instruction by turning all classes into a plexiglass wonderland, you took charge,” she said. “You were determined that nothing, not even a worldwide epidemic, would ruin the last year of your college life. You took the lead in protecting yourselves and others, guiding the classes below you how best to follow the extensive protocols the college put in place.”
On the cusp of womanhood, the graduates experienced profound changes—both personal and institutional—during their years at the Amherst County college, Woo said.
“And you accepted them, handled them with grace and tenacity, and in doing so, you became a Sweet Briar woman – a human species known for being truly resilient, kind, and gentle.”